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New weapons, new wars

Published Nov 24, 2012 10:03pm


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THROUGHOUT history, the emergence of new and more effective weapons has usually led to war or escalated violence.

Each new weapon — the broadsword, lance, longbow, siege machine, heavy cavalry, gunpowder, cannons, repeating rifle, machine-gun, battle tank, aeroplane, helicopter, submarines, ballistic and cruise missile — in its time changed military equations and led to aggression by those who had gained the military advantage, even if temporarily.

Unfortunately, nuclear weapons were no exception. On the other hand, other than decisive defeat or victory, wars ended, or were avoided, when military power, and the weapons which are its essential components, were equally matched.

In the modern world, the asymmetry of military power and weapons systems has grown dramatically. Smaller and poorer nations have little or no capacity to defend themselves against the superior military power of larger and more technologically advanced states.

Even the militaries of mid-sized states are unable to defend themselves against the military prowess of the great powers, specially the United States. Saddam Hussein’s military crumbled twice in short order. For most states and groups confronting superior power and weapons, the only recourse is asymmetric warfare.

Referring to Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama declared in his re-election victory speech that “a decade of war is ending”. However, there is a clear and present danger that the past decade of mainly land wars could be replaced by wars fought in the skies and cyber space with even more deadly consequences.

Several new weapons have been or are about to be developed, deployed or used which may yield this outcome: attack drones, anti-ballistic missiles, cyber weapons and stealth, laser and space weapons technologies. Of these, drones, ABM systems and cyber weapons, have already begun to enhance the proclivity of their possessors to use force.

The use of the Predator and Reaper drones by US forces on the Pakistan-Afghan border has increased the frequency and lethality of attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents. No doubt, this capability has contributed to the US decision to withdraw its land forces from Afghanistan. But, as the land war draws to a close, there will be an inevitable tendency for the US to rely ever more on drones to continue to support the regime or factions it leaves behind in Afghanistan.

There is a parallel concern in Islamabad that drones could be used for ‘precision’ strikes against Pakistan’s strategic capabilities. Overcoming this suspicion may be key to future Pakistan-US cooperation.

Drones may also become a weapon of choice if and when Western powers decide to play a more active role in support of the opposition forces in Syria. However, their use would lead to an escalation of the conflict and its extension to neighbouring countries.

Drone capabilities are being rapidly developed by other powers. China, India and Pakistan may soon have a capability that matches that of the US. No doubt, Iran will work overtime to reverse-engineer the US drone it captured.

There will be considerable temptation for all these powers to use drones against insurgents and other ‘difficult’ targets, rather than seek political solutions. The insurgents will find asymmetric means — IEDs, suicide attacks — to respond. Internal and cross-border conflicts would thus expand and be prolonged.

Cyberwar is also a reality now. The so-called Stuxnet virus, widely believed to have been used by the US and/or Israel to crash Iran’s centrifuges, is the most celebrated contemporary case of cyberwar. But the US secretary of defence, in a recent speech, alluded to cyber attacks on the US itself. There is no doubt that this covert war is being waged on a wide front, especially among the most advanced ‘IT powers’.

The escalation of this ‘war’, or its ‘crossover’ into the realm of physical conflict is a constant danger. Thus, in response to crashing centrifuges or escalating economic sanctions, the target country could launch a cyber strike against the presumed adversary to bring down its electrical grid or disrupt civil air traffic.

In the absence of international control, states will presume that their military command and control systems are under cyber attack. They may delegate military decisions, like the launch of tactical missiles, to junior commanders, multiplying the likelihood of a conflict and its instant escalation. Detection of presumed cyber attacks could also lead to war by miscalculation.

The third ‘new’ weapon — anti-ballistic missiles — is potentially the most destabilising.

Some days ago, the New York Times carried an article asserting that Israel’s recent Gaza operation was designed as a “test” for Israel’s anti-ballistic missile systems against Iranian missiles. The article leads to the disturbing presumption that the greater the success of Israel’s Iron Dome ABM system, the greater the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This would be the clearest illustration of how a so-called ‘defensive’ system can contribute to ‘offensive’ action.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union expressly limited ABM systems to one on each side. They agreed that their widespread deployment would destabilise ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ and nuclear deterrence. However, the faster technological development of ABM systems by the US and the decline and disappearance of the Soviet Union enabled the US to discard the ABM treaty and its restraints.

Now, there is every likelihood that ABM systems will proliferate. The US is deploying ABM systems against tactical, medium and long-range missiles, in the Arab part of the Gulf as well as in Europe. The proposed European deployment has evoked a strong response from Moscow which believes that these ABM deployments are aimed principally to neutralise Russia’s strategic capabilities. Intentions to deploy similar systems in Asia will no doubt evince opposition from Beijing. The stability of great power nuclear deterrence could be in jeopardy.

Closer to home, India too is in the process of acquiring advanced ABM systems. This could erode ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ between Pakistan and India. To preserve the credibility of nuclear deterrence, Pakistan would have a choice: follow the extremely expensive path of acquiring ABM systems also, or the cheaper route of multiplying the number of offensive missiles and nuclear warheads.

Western analysts have not explained this as the reason for Pakistan’s enlargement of fissile material production. Adding ABM systems to the uncertain nuclear and missile equations in South Asia is equivalent to throwing a match into a tinderbox.

It is surprising that the international community has taken no steps to address the danger of new wars posed by these new weapons. The Geneva Conference on Disarmament — the sole multilateral disarmament negotiating forum — remains preoccupied by the agenda of Western powers — a treaty to halt fissile material production — while nudging aside calls for nuclear and space disarmament.

It is time that the Geneva body turned its attention to controlling those new and emerging weapons which pose a real and present threat to peace and security. It should put on its agenda and consider, as a priority, measures to regulate and control the deployment and use of drones, cyberwar and anti-ballistic missiles.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (21) Closed

Goldberg Nov 26, 2012 10:46am
' no country can cross borders to strike another without inviting international retaliation.' sure. that's exactly what happened in Gaza.
Shah Nov 26, 2012 05:17pm
Why just don't put aside these so-called realist theories of minimum deterrence, military capabilities and balance of power ? One should stretch upto the size of blanket instead of adding more foreign debts and miseries to the public by reiterating the hollow rhetorics of eating grass. Cannon were replaced by tanks, fighter aircrats by drones, missiles aroused the need of ABM. This arms race would not stop here and generation after generation would keep eating grass.
Tahir Nov 26, 2012 03:05pm
Thats what happened Iraq as well.
bmurray Nov 27, 2012 12:31am
That is exactly what Pakistan has been doing. Spending billions on nuclear weapons while allowing its infrastructure to crumble (schools, roads, rule of law, etc.), and its population to fall into poverty and into the arms of extremists.
Raj Nov 27, 2012 01:40am
An effective ABM is good deterrence. Number of nuclear weapons does not matter that much if every missile can be shot down.
Ara Nov 27, 2012 01:57am
Avery good and proven formula, used in Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and now being used in India and Pakistan.
Mr.T Nov 25, 2012 12:42pm
War doesn't mean use ABM or Nukes, for e.g USSR to Russia. Was has new meaning break the country from inside and win a country without using any mass destruction weapons. For E.g no need to fight Pakistan if we could break it from inside make people against each other, buy few 3 to 4 leaders buy some media, then remaining is soldier, so what use of soldier if people are not with them...
MOHAMMAD Nov 26, 2012 03:43am
well written dear sir. ALLAH BLESS YOU. PAKISTAN ZINDABAAD. we need to strengthen ourselves at any cost.
Cyrus Howell Nov 25, 2012 12:14pm
The prospect of election defeat pushed the Obama administration to develop more specific rules on unmanned drone strikes.
Silajit Nov 25, 2012 03:59pm
Pakistan is well past the "minimum" nuclear deterrent. It will soon have the 4th largest nuclear stockpile bypassing the UK.
Sue Sturgess Nov 26, 2012 04:05pm
what differnece does it make? 1st , 2nd,... 1000th... anyone who explodes a nuclear bomb destroys the entire planet, one way or the other
Aslam Khan Nov 25, 2012 06:17am
Sir I am in harmony with your ideas. Most of the conflicts happen due to the greed of large weapons manufacturing organizations who keep their governments on their payrolls. Are drones and ABM Shield newer toys to further these aims? Or they're still being held back for an opportune moment?
Sue Sturgess Nov 26, 2012 04:03pm
who benefits from war? the same people get paid to destroy,who get paid to rebuild. War is simply a business
Akhtar Tarar Nov 25, 2012 10:59am
Author has corrected mentioned that the new weapons always led to war and even weapons of mass destruction are not exempted but unfortunately statesmen of big powers and leaders of international organizations have not played the role which is being expected from them and the world is on the verge of devastation because of these weapons of mass destruction.
Vikas Nov 26, 2012 06:56am
This article shows the immaturity of Pakistani diplomats. They think that India has only one bad neighbor. They forget another bully, namely China.
Cyrus Howell Nov 26, 2012 11:12am
At Any Cost.
Feroz Nov 25, 2012 05:13am
There is absolutely no need for any country to copy the developments made by another. For a nation to be strong primacy must be given to Economic growth and empowerment of its human resources. Let those who want to pursue arms do so however today no country can cross borders to strike another without inviting international retaliation.
human Nov 26, 2012 12:15pm
Even if that means eating grass.
Dr. D. Prithipaul Nov 26, 2012 07:38pm
M. Akram forgets that the UK decolonised at the very time when it became a nuclear power. It colonised with the help of muskets and canon balls. During the span of one generation so many empires based on the most sophisticated weaponries have disappeared: British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Belgian, German, Japanese, Russian. He also forgets to mention terror outfits, dear to Pakistan, as a weapon of war. It may be incongruous to say it, but the fact is that since 1492 war and domination - not sharing and amicable mutual understanding and respect - has been the sole vocation of the votaries of monotheistic beliefs. The means that war will remain their major preoccupation as well as of those who have to defend themselves against the parties of God (Jehovah, Jesus, Allah) used as a convenient fig leaf to hide the pretext for a war, any war - slavery, colonisation, civil wars, dynastic wars, religious wars, world wars, genocidal wars., though reason does not find a justification to believe in the existence of God. So long as there will a lab, a scientist and the funds for both, for the manufacture of more and more sophisticated weapons.
Ali G Nov 25, 2012 11:05am
a very well written an insight of modern war techniques and technology
Kayenn Nov 26, 2012 11:29am
China now has despute with almost all the countries it shares its border with except Pakistan - which gave away large piece of land to develop special friendship...............